We had returned to the same hotel in Tehran and that familiarity of the surroundings seemed to underscore that the full circle of our trip had finally closed.
Our last morning started with a drive through Tehran to the Reza Abbasi Museum. Its rather unprepossessing facade betrayed nothing of the splendours within. Spread over its many floors were the most exquisite examples of archaeological objects, Persian manuscripts, and ceramics. A true treasure trove.
In the dim light of the top floor, my eye was continually caught by the glint of gold in the display cases. Spotlights shone on treasures from 7th century BC Median culture, through the Achaemenid Empire and up until the Sassanian period in the 6th/7th centuries AD. The craftsmanship spanning these centuries was ridiculously impressive and though I’m not usually one for shiny bling I was like a magpie darting from one case to another; eyes feasting on the golden bowls, drinking vessels and decorative objects.
The ceramic objects on display on the floor below may not have gleamed and sparkled but they were no less bewitching. Most of the pieces that appealed to me, as they had on our visit to the Archaeological Museum, were the wonderful zoomorphic vessels in the shape of deer, stags and pigs whose open mouths seemed to bellow at you in a chorus from each case.
The floor below had various ceramics from the Islamic period, each one ornately decorated and many reminding me of the inside of the mosque domes I’d seen so many of over the last two weeks. Others were strikingly modern looking – simple stripes or the black brush stroke of script against a white background.
The next floor was dedicated to Kufic manuscripts dating from the 9th century and images from books mainly from the Safavid Period (16th-18th century AD). I was immediately entranced in the incredible detail of the images. Miniature scenes and portraits executed with the deftest of touch. Prancing horses, galavanting camels, coy poses by individuals and jolly scenes of picnics all in a flourish of vibrant colour. On closer inspection of one of the drawings revealed a slightly darker side – strewn on the floor between the legs of the camels and horses were the bloodied dismembered limbs and heads of the enemy at war. The image of a figure seated on a horse also seemed innocent from afar but up close the horse’s body was made up of a tangle of humans and animals.
The manuscripts of excerpts from the Quran were entrancing. To someone who reads Kufic script they would mean something but to me they were simply (and ignorantly) a beautiful pattern of sweeping lines and dots that captivated me. Some of the script looked like a group of snails and slugs had gathered together on parchment, others looked like an annotated music sheet with letters rather than notes bobbing above and below the lines of the stave. They were simply beautiful and I was transfixed until I was called to join the others who were assembling in the entrance.
We went on a drive around Tehran to get a general impression of the city. It was far busier now the holidays were drawing to a close. Sadly, the architecture did little for me and the general run down nature of the capital city is glaring in comparison to some of the jewels of towns we had seen. It feels like a city on edge and has nothing of the blissful calmness of Esfahan. Huge murals remind you of the political, religious and military struggles Iran has undergone and there is an unnerving feel to seeing huge depictions of gun toting martyrs and celebrated religious leaders looming above you.
The anti-American stance of the State was palpable. The walls of the closed American Embassy were emblazoned with propaganda: a mural of the Statue of Liberty with a face of a skull, a loaded starred and striped gun… Thankfully now, Iranians who appear to abhor a blank wall, are painting murals of a less hardcore nature and that, instead, embrace the more playful aspects of life. Long may this continue…
The most imposing monument in Tehran is undoubtedly the Azadi Tower (Freedom Gate). It defies perspective and seemed to me to look big from any distance. It stands in the middle of a huge roundabout and its shape, I am informed, is inspired from historical architecture. The main vault is from the Sassanian Period, the arch has been plucked from the medieval period; and the stands on its flared base represent connections between the old and new. It’s a formidable structure and somehow, though heavy with marble and squat in proportions, managed to look, from some angles, quite light against the matching blue and white sky.
After lunch two of us broke off from the main group and returned to the National Archaeological Museum. While our first trip to the museum on day two had been absorbing and jaw-dropping, two weeks of seeing sites, gauging Iran’s complex chronology and understanding the historical landscape meant that the same objects could now be viewed in a better context. I was not disappointed with my choice to return. I headed for the grey wall at the back of the museum to see the so-called Darius relief once more. It was still jaw-dropping. But now I had been to Persepolis and seen the other relief carvings it had more of an impact on me. The reliefs of rows of attendants, the ambassadors from other countries lined up with their gifts, the archers with their tightly curled beards, and the repeating scene of a lion mauling a bull came flooding back to mind and here before me was the king whom they were all honouring. It was humbling.
I noticed some objects I had overlooked on the first visit and was thrilled to discover that they were inscriptions from Persepolis including one on a column base that started ‘I am Darius, the Great King, King of Kings… ’ I could now recite the rest with ease. I paused and kept looking at this object that had, incredibly, survived the destruction by Alexander the Great. Here was the voice of Darius the Great, son-in-law to Cyrus the Great.
Alongside this was a round column drum from Susa with a neat inscription claiming ‘I am Artaxerxes, the Great King, King of Kings, son of Darius the King…’ and next to that an inscribed tablet belonging to his other son, Xerxes claiming much the same. How I had missed these gems I am not sure but it was an exciting moment to find them this time.
Wandering around the rest of the museum I took in the elegant pose of a statue of Darius, a small bull-headed column that was a repeating theme in Achaemenid architecture, the delicate reliefs on a staircase, the poise of a sculpted dog from Persepolis, the beautiful glazed bricks from Susa, and a wonderful depiction of a Sassanian with terrific hair.
We left the museum as the sun was low in the sky and a warm light filled the street. We returned to the hotel via a different route and passed a large building. I broke off our conversation and stopped dead in my tracks. Before me stood a building that had replicated every facet of Persepolis into its fabric. There were the reliefs of the attendants, the grand staircases, the blocky crenellations, the bull-headed columns, the slightly Egyptian door lintels, and at the top a relief of Ahura Mazda. There was suddenly no need to imagine what parts of Persepolis might have looked like in all its splendour. Bewilderingly, here it was!
Iran was, just as I had anticipated, not the most dangerous place on Earth at all. Quite the contrary – I found it to be one of the most beautiful, inspirational, unforgettable and fascinating places I have ever visited. The people couldn’t be more friendly (save the road rage man!) and its history couldn’t be more fascinating. From the ornate domes of mosques to the mesmerising remains of Persepolis I really couldn’t be more consumed with awe and wonder. The reliefs of curly haired men, the solitary beauty of Cyrus’ tomb, the calm of the mosques, the dramatic landscape, the blues and turquoises of the tiles… all these things will all stay with me.
As a woman though, I didn’t feel like I’d left Iran until I was well and truly aboard the plane and I could, for the first time since landing 15 days ago, remove my head scarf in public. It was a very liberating moment but I was prepared to don it again as I was already keen to return to this wondrous country.